Quote Origin: No Generalization Is Wholly True — Not Even This One
Mark Twain? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.? Alexandre Dumas fils? Lady Mary Wortley Montagu? Ellen Osborn? Manley H. Pike? Ben Johnson? Benjamin Disraeli? Alexander Chase? Roger O’Mara? Anonymous?
Question for Quote Investigator: Making sweeping statements about the universe is difficult to resist, but exceptions seem to be unavoidable. The following comically paradoxical statement is popular. Here are two versions:
(1) All generalizations are false, including this one.
(2) No generalization is wholly true — not even this one.
This notion has been attributed to many people including U.S. humorist Mark Twain, U.S. jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and French playwright Alexandre Dumas fils. The situation is confusing. Would you please explore this topic?
Reply from Quote Investigator: This thought has been expressed in many ways. The identity of the creator remains uncertain. A precursor was penned in 1710 by English aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who achieved fame via her eloquent letters. Below is an overview sampling with attributions and dates:
1710: General notions are generally wrong. (Lady Mary Wortley Montagu)
1882 Jul: All generalizations are false, including this one. (Attributed to a “witty Frenchman”)
1886: All generalizations are dangerous, even this one. (Attributed to Alexandre Dumas fils)
1892 Dec: No concise, unqualified assertion is ever entirely true — not even this one. (Manley H. Pike)
1894: No generalization is quite true; not even this one! (French adage)
1895 Aug: No generalization is absolutely correct — not even this one. (French adage)
1896 Jun: No generalization is accurate — not even this one. (Ellen Osborn)
1897 Jun: No generalization is quite true, not even this one. (Attributed to a “famous Frenchman”)
1903 May: No generalization is wholly true, not even this one. (Anonymous)
1911 Jul: No generalization is wholly true — not even this one. (Private detective Roger O’Mara)
1917 Feb: No generalization is ever completely true, not even this one. (Attributed to a Frenchman by Henry Cabot Lodge)
1926: Toutes les généralisations sont fausses, y compris celle que je viens de faire. Translation: All generalizations are wrong, including the one I just made. (Anonymous)
1930: No generalization is wholly true — not even this one. (Attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. by Owen Wister)
1943: All generalizations are dangerous, even this one. (Attributed to Alexandre Dumas fils)
1973 Jan: All generalizations are false including this one. (Attributed to Mark Twain)
1979 Mar: All generalizations are false, including this one. (Attributed to Ben Johnson)
1981: All generalizations are false, including this one. (Attributed to Benjamin Disraeli)
1984: All generalizations are false, including this one. (Attributed to Alexander Chase)
Below are additional details for selected citations in chronological order.
In 1710 Mary Pierrepont (Lady Mary Wortley Montagu) penned a letter to her future husband Wortley Montagu. She employed a precursor of the expression under examination. Boldface added to excepts by QI:¹
General notions are generally wrong. Ignorance and folly are thought the best foundations for virtue, as if not knowing what a good wife is was necessary to make one so. I confess that can never be my way of reasoning …
In 1882 the “Musical Herald” of Boston, Massachusetts published a short piece titled “Rules” without a byline. The adage was ascribed to an unnamed “witty Frenchman”:²
Some one has said that the greatest geniuses are the poorest models, a phrase which gains much of its point as an epigram from an exaggeration of the truth it implies. Of course, such sayings are to be taken with a grain of salt; for, as a witty Frenchman said, “All generalizations are false, including this one.”
In 1886 the collection “Edge-Tools of Speech” compiled by Maturin M. Ballou included the following entry referring to the prominent French author Alexandre Dumas fils. This saying differed from the adage under exploration, but the template was similar. Perhaps there was some confusion between the sayings. QI has not yet found an instance in French attributed to Dumas:³
All generalizations are dangerous, even this one. — Dumas, Fils.
In 1892 “The Century Magazine” of New York published a collection of “Observations” from Manley H. Pike. The following three items were included:⁴
No concise, unqualified assertion is ever entirely true — not even this one.
Ask only the well about their health.
In these times there are no unappreciated geniuses; but there are a great many over-appreciated mediocrities.
In 1893 the observations by Pike were noticed, and “The Irish Monthly” of Dublin, Ireland reprinted two items:⁵
Vice is indulgence; virtue, abstinence. — Manley Pike.
No concise, unqualified assertion is ever entirely true — not even this one. — The Same.
In 1894 “Musicians and Music-Lovers, and Other Essays” by William Foster Apthorp contained an instance labeled a “French saw”, i.e., a French adage:⁶
The difference between the musician’s and the ordinary music-lover’s enjoyment of music is more in kind than in degree; it is a fundamental difference in point of view. Of course, I am ready to admit all the exceptions you please; I am speaking in generalities, and am fully aware of the truth of the excellent French saw: “No generalization is quite true; not even THIS ONE!”
In 1895 the editor of “The Churchman” of New York employed the adage while replying to a correspondent:⁷
Now, in all this, we are not unmindful of the French saying, “No generalization is absolutely correct not even this one,” and we have no doubt that many readers of THE CHURCHMAN will find instances rising in their memories which go to controvert the statements which we have just made …
In 1896 columnist Ellen Osborn of the “Plainfield Courier-News” in New Jersey employed an instance:⁸
Here is a fairer statement: “No generalization is accurate — not even this one.”
In 1897 “The New York Times” credited an unnamed “famous Frenchman” with the saying while discussing a minster who condemned contemporary novels:⁹
It was a famous Frenchman who said, “No generalization is quite true, not even this one.” The minister who on Sunday uttered a spirited protest against novel reading may have had this saying in mind when he put a saving word at the beginning of his most vigorous assertion, “Perhaps ninety-nine out of a hundred are baleful, an outrage on decency and common sense.”
In 1903 “The Railway Age” of Chicago, Illinois printed an instance with an anonymous attribution:¹⁰
A monument should be erected to hold in lasting memory the name and personality of that man who said, “No generalization is wholly true, not even this one.”
In 1911 the saying was used by private detective Roger O’Mara who was the former Superintendent of Police for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania:¹¹
Nowadays the sons of our very rich men not only receive enormous sums to spend, but are not required to do any real work. It is no wonder they cause their parents so many heartaches. Of course there are many exceptions to what I have said. No generalization is wholly true — not even this one.
In 1917 U.S. statesman Henry Cabot Lodge attributed the saying to an unnamed Frenchman:¹²
I might cite other examples, but one affirmative instance is enough to shatter a universal negative. As the Frenchman said, “No generalization is ever completely true, not even this one.”
In 1926 a translated article by Thomas Henry Healy included a French version of the saying. Healy was an Associate Dean at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service:¹³
Comme un homme d’esprit le faisait un jour observer : « Toutes les généralisations sont fausses, y compris celle que je viens de faire. »
As a wise man once observed, “All generalizations are wrong, including the one I just made.”
In 1930 Owen Wister published a memoir which included an instance attributed to justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The time was not specified, but the previous quotation in the book was spoken by Holmes in 1929:¹⁴
He was the first to quote me this observation, which had delighted him:
“No generalization is wholly true — not even this one.” He had a way of putting his thoughts so unusually that they stuck: “It’s only when you mix your metaphors badly that it’s wrong.”
In 1943 “Thesaurus of Epigrams” compiled by Edmund Fuller included the following item:¹⁵
All generalizations are dangerous, even this one. — Dumas the Younger
In 1973 the saying appeared in the transcript of a hearing in the U.S. Senate. The words were tentatively and implausibly attributed to Mark Twain:¹⁶
I guess it was Mark Twain who said all generalizations are false including this one. I think the administration is operating on a lot of false generalizations.
In 1979 an Associated Press article ascribed the adage to English playwright Ben Jonson:¹⁷
All of which bears out Georges Simenon’s point that “All proverbs contradict each other.” Or as Ben Jonson put it: “All generalizations are false, including this one.”
In 1981 Richard P. Walters published “How To Be a Friend People Want to be Friends With”, and he attributed the adage to British statesman Benjamin Disraeli:¹⁸
This is a good time to remember what Disraeli said: “All generalizations are false, including this one.”
In 1984 “The Dictionary of Essential Quotations” compiled by Kevin Goldstein-Jackson attributed the saying to Alexander Chase who was born in 1926:¹⁹
All generalizations are false, including this one.
— Alexander Chase (1926- ) Perspectives
In 1990 “What a Piece of Work Is Man!: Camp’s Unfamiliar Quotations from 2,000 B.C. to the present” compiled by Wesley D. Camp also credited Chase. The entry cited a work titled “Perspectives” from 1966, but QI has been unable to locate this work:²⁰
All generalizations are false, including this one.
Alexander Chase, Perspectives, 1966
In 1993 Richard Hill published “We Europeans” which contained the following as an epigraph for the introduction. The text below is followed by a translation:²¹
“Toutes les généralisations sont dangereuses, même celle-ci” (attributed to Alexandre Dumas but modified, for the purpose of this book, to: “Toutes les généralisations sont dangereuses, même celles-ci”)
“All generalizations are dangerous, even this one” (attributed to Alexandre Dumas but modified, for the purpose of this book, to: “All generalizations are dangerous, even these”)
The attribution to Twain continued to circulate in 2003 via an opinion piece in “The Roanoke Times” of Virginia:²²
As Mark Twain said: “All generalizations are false, including this one.”
In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current research. A precursor occurred in a letter in 1710. A close match for this family of sayings appeared in 1882. The words were attributed to an unnamed “witty Frenchman”. Thus, the creator remains unknown
French writer Alexandre Dumas fils received credit for a variant in 1886, but QI has not yet found a direct citation to one of his books, essays, or speeches. Attributions to Mark Twain were not substantive. They occurred many years after his death. The earliest attribution to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was substantive, but it appeared in 1930 which was quite late.
Image Notes: Illustration of lightbulbs with one illuminated from ColiN00B at Pixabay.
Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Mordechai Schiller whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Schiller found no substantive support for the attribution to Mark Twain. He located the entry in “The Yale Book of Quotations” which listed the 1930 attribution to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
 1893, The Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Volume 1 of 2, Edited by Her Great Granson Lord Wharncliffe, With Additions and Corrections by W. Moy Thomas, Letter to Mr. Wortley Montagu, Letter Date: March 28, 1710, Quote Page 172 and 173, Swan Sonnenschein & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
 1882 July, Musical Herald, Volume 3, Number 7, Rules, Quote Page 174, Column 1, Musical Herald Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
 1886, Edge-Tools of Speech, Selected and Arranged by Maturin M. Ballou, Topic: Apothegm, Quote Page 19, Column 2, Ticknor and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
 1892 December, The Century Magazine, Volume 45, Number 2, In Lighter Vein: Observations by Manley H. Pike, Quote Page 320, The Century Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
 1893 May, The Irish Monthly: A Magazine of General Literature, Volume 21, Number 239, Winged Words, Quote Page 273, M. H. Gill & Son, Dublin, Ireland. (Google Books Full View) link
 1894, Musicians and Music-Lovers, and Other Essays by William Foster Apthorp, Chapter: Musicians and Music Lovers, Quote Page 8, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
 1895 August 17, The Churchman: An Illustrated Weekly News-Magazine, Volume 72, Number 7, Reply from the editor to a letter to The Churchman, Start Page 172, Quote Page 173, Column 1, M. H. Mallory & Company Publishers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
 1896 June 18, Plainfield Courier-News, Women’s Realm: Ellen Osborn’s Letter, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Plainfield, New Jersey. (ProQuest)
 1897 June 8, New York Times, Reading Bad Novels, Quote Page 6, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)
 1903 May 8, The Railway Age, Volume 35, Number 19, The General Balance Sheet by S. M. Hudson (Auditor Ft. Worth & Denver City Railroad), Quote Page 823, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
 1911 July 2, The Inter Ocean, Section: The Inter Ocean Magazine, The Shepherd of the Black Sheep by Karl K. Kitchen, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
 1917, War Addresses 1915–1917 by Henry Cabot Lodge, Chapter 15: The President’s Plan For a World Peace, (Speech Delivered in the Senate, February 1, 1917), Start Page 246, Quote Page 253, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
 1926, Recueil Des Cours 1925 (Collected Courses 1925), IV Tome 9 de le Collection, Académie de Droit International établie avec le concours de la Dotation Carnegie Pour La Paix Internationale (Academy of International Law established with the support of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), Théorie Générale De l’Ordre Public (General Theory of Public Order) by Thomas Henry Healy (Doyen adjoint de l’École de Service étranger de l’Université de Georgetown; Associate Dean, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service), Start Page 409, Quote Page 421, Librairie Hachette, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link
 1930, Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship: 1880–1919 by Owen Wister, Chapter 13, Quote Page 131, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
 1943 Copyright, Thesaurus of Epigrams, Edited by Edmund Fuller, Topic: Thought, Quote Page 277, Crown Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans; HathiTrust)
 1973, Hearings Before the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, United States Senate, Ninety-Third Congress, First Session, On S. 398: A Bill To Extend and Amend the Economic Stabilization Act of 1970, Date: January 29, 1973, Senator Joseph R. Biden, Quote Page 185, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (Google Books Full View) link
 1979 March 26, The Atlanta Constitution, Losers Can Try Philosophy by Chet Currier (Associated Press), Quote Page 10D, Column 4, Atlanta, Georgia. (Newspapers_com)
 1981, How To Be a Friend People Want to be Friends With by Richard P. Walters, Chapter 4: Walls: Barriers to Servant Friendship, Quote Page 51, Regal Books: A Division of GL Publications, Ventura, California. (Verified with scans)
 1984 (1983 Copyright), The Dictionary of Essential Quotations, Compiled by Kevin Goldstein-Jackson, Topic: Generalizations, Quote Page 60, A Helix Book: Rowman & Allanheld, Totowa, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
 1990, What a Piece of Work Is Man!: Camp’s Unfamiliar Quotations from 2,000 B.C. to the present by Wesley D. Camp, Topic: Generalization, Quote Page 110, Prentice Hall, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on Paper)
 1993, We Europeans by Richard Hill, Fourth Edition, Chapter: Introduction, (Epigraph of Introduction), Quote Page 7, Europublications: A Division of Europublic SA/NV, Brussels, Belgium. (Verified with scans)
 2003 June 29, The Roanoke Times, Section: Horizon, Heady academics without heady athletics by F. D. Bloss, Quote Page 3, Column 5, Roanoke, Virginia. (Newspapers_com)